Jonathan Zimmerman: The murder of five Amish schoolgirls taught us no one is safe

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory," which will be published next year.]

Today, many of us will pause to remember the five Amish girls who were murdered a year ago at a one-room schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pa. Television crews will return to the community and dutifully record Amish children walking to their new one-room school, which looks a lot like the one torn down days after the attack.

But the new building has a steel door that locks from the inside. And that makes all the difference.

School shootings are etched onto our collective psyche, each name signifying another moment of unspeakable horror. Littleton, Colo. Jonesboro, Ark. Springfield, Ore. And most recently, of course, Virginia Tech.

But Nickel Mines was different, because of its victims. For nearly a century, the Amish have symbolized simple rural living and the security that came with it. When Charles Carl Roberts took those Amish girls' lives, he took away this feeling. The new Amish school represents our effort to reclaim it, to return to an era before such mass murder. But the steel door reminds us that we can't.

Most Americans knew and cared little about the Amish until the 1930s, when Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal revolutionized the nation's countryside. Federal assistance brought electricity, soil conservation and better roads. Children who used to walk to single-classroom buildings now took buses to consolidated schools, where they mixed with a wider array of students and teachers.

New Deal photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans often trained their cameras on dilapidated one-room schools, which epitomized the poverty and parochialism of rural communities. At the same time, Americans worried that the positive aspects of country life -- tranquillity, simplicity, self-reliance -- were passing away.

Enter the Amish, who received their first great burst of nationwide publicity in the late 1930s. Even as the countryside transformed, they upheld its traditions: horses and buggies, oil lamps and one-room schools. Like Laura Ingalls Wilder's series of "Little House" novels, which topped bestseller lists during the same period, the Amish symbolized the sturdy pioneer character that would lead the United States out of the Depression.

So reporters and photographers descended on Amish communities, eager to transmit the lessons from these surviving bastions of rural virtue. Between March 1937 and December 1938, for example, the New York Times ran 17 articles on efforts by Amish parents in East Lampeter, Pa., to save their one-room schools from consolidation. House and Garden and other magazines published photo essays about the Amish, including the inevitable shot of children walking to a one-room schoolhouse.

Fast-forward to the 1970s and 1980s, the next big wave of Amish-as-metaphor. This one came from political conservatives, who worried that public education was in decline. They seized on the Amish and their one-room schools, which seemed to embody the back-to-basics instruction and discipline that the rest of the nation had forsaken.

As one advocate gushed, Amish children studied "the unsweetened 3 Rs" -- that is, reading, writing and arithmetic; even more, they resisted "fads and frills" like gym, art and sex education. Most of all, the Amish continued to pray in the classroom. As public schools turned away from God, the argument went, these rural folk held on to him.

This week, of course, we'll use the Amish to represent another quality of our lives that has been lost: security. We hear that term all the time now, especially in the context of the so-called war on terror. But the most unfathomable terror lies right next to us, in tortured souls like Charles Roberts. And we never know when it will strike again.

That's why the new Amish school in Nickel Mines has that steel door with multiple locks. It still doesn't have a telephone, but the school sits next to a row of non-Amish homes that do. During Roberts' rampage, the teacher had to run to a nearby farm to dial 911.

At the students' request, meanwhile, the driveway leading to the new school is paved. They are still haunted by the sound of Roberts' pickup truck, spinning over the gravel driveway on his way to kill their siblings and friends.

Their schoolhouse has a different name now: New Hope Amish School. And these gentle people do give us hope, for the day when senseless violence no longer mars our schools and communities.

But that day is a long way off, and we all know it. In today's national imagination, the Amish embody safety and security. So if the Amish aren't safe, nobody is. Those five children could have been your kids or mine. And we all know that too.

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